Every Saturday, Riverside’s John W. North High School is transformed into the Inland area’s Chinese cultural center.
In the morning, about 80 students sit in eight classrooms to learn the Mandarin Chinese language and then shift to other rooms for lessons in subjects such as calligraphy, kung fu and brush drawing.
An hour after they leave, another weekly Chinese school takes over with a similar combination of language and culture classes. In other rooms at North, mothers of many of the students learn and practice traditional Chinese singing and dance, and fathers play basketball in the gymnasium.
Yuzhen Liu teaches her sixth-grade Chinese language class on Saturday at North High School in Riverside. The school serves as a cultural center, offering music, dance, sports and more to those of Chinese ancestry.
In a region such as the Inland area, where the small Chinese population is widely dispersed, North is a cultural and linguistic oasis where immigrants share memories of the old country and children learn their parents’ language and traditions.
“Our Chinese school can act as a kind of collecting point for all Chinese-speaking people,” teacher Jinwu Ma said on a recent Saturday afternoon as he walked across the North campus, the sounds of Mandarin coming from the classrooms. “People have a need to relate to people similar to them. If we did not have this, it would be hard to get together.”
Ma, 47, has lived for the past five years in Lake Elsinore, where there are relatively few other Chinese immigrants. Less than 1 percent of the population of Riverside and San Bernardino counties–about 34,000 people–is of Chinese ancestry, according to 2008 U.S. Census estimates, compared with nearly 4 percent in Los Angeles County and 3 percent statewide.
Weiping Yang, a software developer from Redlands, spends almost his entire workday speaking English. Yang, 50, likes playing basketball with fellow immigrants each Saturday while his son studies Chinese.
“We can shout in Chinese: ‘Pass the ball to me,’ ” Yang said, his face covered in sweat as he took a short break from a game.
Yang, Ma and other immigrants said North is the only place they know of in the Riverside-San Bernardino area with such an array of Chinese language and cultural activities. There is also a Chinese school in Chino Hills, on the western edge of San Bernardino County.
Some Inland Chinese immigrants attended the occasional dances, banquets and other events held by the Inland Chinese Association. But the group has been dormant during the past two years or so, said Dee Guan, 59, a board member of the Inland Riverside Chinese School.
The preference that many children of immigrants have for English is a key reason why the two schools exist. Jia Mei’s 12-year-old son Kevin is learning Chinese, even though Mei and her husband speak Chinese to him in their Corona home.